Opinion

Dear politicians of the EU, it's time to decentralize the internet

It does not happen often that one buys over 6kg of tomato cans to express their opinion, but this is what happened to me. And no, I did not buy the tomatoes with the intent to throw them at someone. Instead, the cans were necessary for a demonstration of a decentralised communication network. In this article, I will explain to you what that is and why you should care.



What is that, decentralization?

Last January, I received a Whatsapp message in a group chat on Whatsapp from one of my friends, Sarah. She told us that she was going to leave Whatsapp, and asked whether we would all be down (25 people) to migrate the group chat to Signal, a messaging app that became commonly known for its encrypted messaging and for being a "good alternative to Whatsapp".

To be honest, I was personally slightly annoyed by this. I already have Whatsapp, Slack, Discord, MS Teams, Gmail, Snapchat, Telegram and other messaging apps installed, and the last thing that I'm looking for, is installing another app onto my phone. In an ideal world, I'd have one app, perhaps two, and take care of all my communications through that one or two apps.

At the same time I didn't want to lose contact with Sarah, so I was at an impasse here: do I want to lose digital contact with Sarah, or do I install yet another messaging app on my phone? I thought to myself, I wished that I could use my Whatsapp account and talk to my friend on Signal.

How great would it be if it didn't matter which app you used to talk to your relatives?

I discussed this topic with some relatives of mine, and then the concept of a decentralised communication protocol came up, which caught my attention.

The rise of Matrix

Apparently, there is this organisation called Matrix that has defined a decentralised communcation protocol. The concept of their protocol is that it allows for decentralised, interoperable communication. [1] What that means? It means that I can use any app of choice, you can use any (other) app of choice, and we can still talk to each other on our respective apps!

Or, that's what interoperability means: being able to talk to each other from different apps. Decentralisation means that you don't rely on any company for your conversation with your relative. No-one but you and your conversation partner choose how you communicate.

To explain how decentralisation, we must first look at traditional communication apps like Whatsapp. Such apps are centralised: this means that both you and your friend talk to the Whatsapp server, and that server then gives your messages to the other. Unless you or your friend works at Facebook, you do not have access to the server, and you're using trust to assume that Facebook will not sell your data, or use it for any purposes that you do not appreciate.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives a presentation.

The idea of a protocol like Matrix, is that it's decentralised: instead of you both trusting a service like Whatsapp, you can both choose your own server to trust: this means that I could theoretically choose a service like Discord and you could choose a service like Telegram, and neither service would be in charge of all our messages: if we ever gained a sense of mistrust of either service, we could simply quit the service and move on to another server.

Decentralisation as a concept

The image below shows how a service like Matrix works: instead of all communication having to go through one server, there are lots of scattered servers all over the place, and each dot is able to talk to every other dot.

Simplified representations of a centralised and a decentralised network

This seems like a crazy idea and some may even think that it could be dangerous to give the security of a big server away, but this isn't the case. Networks like Matrix allow your messages to be end-to-end encrypted [2], and other security measures have been taken for complete safety. Futhermore, the French and German government have stepped over to Matrix for governmental subjects, [3] and Germany has supplied over half a million licences to decentrallized servers to help communication in the German education system. [4] (Note: you don't need a licence to use Matrix. Instead, Germany bought their own servers to host Matrix independently.)

Decentralised communication is here now - and it's here to stay.

It's not only the developers at matrix.org who came up with this idea. Other decentralised communication networks are present as well: open communication protocol XMPP was already introduced in 1999, and other networks are gaining momentum as well. Decentralised communication is here now - and it's here to stay.


The unfairness of centralised communication

Let's be honest, the internet is the most beautiful pile of trash you've ever looked at. We have so many issues to fix on the internet in our current generation, but let's solve them step by step. Our first problem? The unfairness of centralised communication.

I can list several reasons why a centralised server that controls all communication, is unfair - and even though it should seem obvious to everyone, I'll name them anyway.

If you switch, EVERYONE must switch

Sarah wasn't the only relative of mine who asked me to step over to Signal - Whatsapp has recently changed some terms for using their app, and experts worry about your privacy. [5] Evidently, users have flooded apps like Telegram and Signal because they're more trustworthy and reliable.

Did those people effectively move over to the new platform, and permanently delete their Whatsapp accounts, as is their EU citizen's right? Well... some did, but most still kept Whatsapp. And why? Because deleting their account would break contact some well friends of theirs - and this gives services like Whatsapp an unfair advantage. Everyone has that one grandmother or reading club that they still care about on Facebook or Whatsapp, and the only way to get them off the platform is by persuading ALL of them to step over.

"You don't HAVE to agree to our terms - if you don't want to chat with your mother."

Right now, everyone's busy convincing each other to leave platforms to step over to another, only for everyone's phone to get filled with dozens of apps, all with terms that you don't genuinely agree with, but still accept because other people have accepted it as well.

This is not an unknown concept. Scientists call it the network effect: the usefulness of a network depends on how many users it has. Companies like Whatsapp use this concept as leverage against you: stepping over to Signal sounds like a great idea, but it only works if everyone follows you in your footsteps.

Censorship is executed freely by a company

If Facebook does not appreciate your membership of their platform, they can at any time end your membership - along with any data they had stored on their servers for you. This can include anything, from numerous accounts without reason or explanation, [6] accounts of important political figures [7] or even external purchases like VR game software. [8] Furthermore, companies like Facebook escape all liabilities as a result of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States, [9] and similar laws in other countries.

In practice, this means that any social media company can end service with you unconditionally whenever they wish. The condition here is that you can only receive a ban if you don't complyi with the (by the company) pre-defined terms of use, although they are in no way obliged to tell you why thee ended the service. This means that a company can give you an unfair treatment based on your preferences, your ideology, your political opinion, or pretty much anything else.

Simultaneously, studies even show that such platforms aren't ethical themselves either: Facebook is one of the best platforms when it comes to spreading fake news, [10] and they usually aren't held accountable for that either. While the platforms seem to wrongfully remove people from their platforms, they are simultaneously making profit off misinformation and are getting away with it.

We should hold social platforms accountable for what they allow their users to share on their platform, and what (and whom) they choose to censor.

Members of the European Parliament have expressed their concerns for the internet relying on local platform guidelines instead of normal laws. [11] The law should enfore freedom of speech and censorship, not social media companies.

The doorbell that doesn't work when Google is down

Not even a system like Google is perfect, and even their service will sometimes experience an outage or lose a steady connection with sufficient bandwidth to help all their customers on the internet. This means that inevitably, from time to time any service will face some time where they cannot access the internet.

I cannot find the picture again, but one funny example is a picture of a front door with a sign saying "YOU HAVE TO KNOCK BECAUSE GOOGLE IS DOWN". This is one of the symptoms of a centralised website: if Facebook has issues, then you can't talk to your friends. If Whatsapp is getting overloaded, you can't reach your relatives. And if Google doesn't work, your smart doorbell won't work. That's because that one node in the middle of the centralized picture is having trouble, and everyone will experience it.

In a decentralized system, you won't notice if anyone besides you or your friend is having trouble connecting to the internet. You don't need a man in the middle, so your connection can go on - even if you two are talking in a group chat with services or people that aren't connected. Sure, your own server can still get down - but not everyone relies on the server performance of one company.


How decentralization solves them

I won't go too much into detail with this - if you know your computer science topics, feel free to read the sources I've listed. Otherwise, I'll explain how decentralization solves the problems effectively.

A decentralized network doesn't suffer from the network effect in the same way: no-one cares about who's on which platform. An open communication network like Matrix already has countless apps that all work on the same network: Matrix's self-built app Element is seemingly the most popular app to use, but there's also countless other apps like FluffyChat, Pattle and Nio. (And if you don't trust any of those apps, you can create your own app!) I have been on Matrix for a few months now, and I've talked to people using all four of those - I've even switched back and forth between Element and FluffyChat myself to see which one works best for me.

One could wonder whether moving everyone from a centralized network to a decentralized network isn't moving the goalpost: instead of being forced to be on Whatsapp altogether, doesn't that mean you HAVE to be on Matrix to communicate with everyone? This isn't the case, however. I will go into more detail in this blog psot about connecting open communication networks.

The problem that social media companies aren't held responsible for the content on their website is a different problem, and a decentralized network doesn't immediately solve the problem. However, one might speculate that it becomes harder for fake news to spread if there isn't one company (cough cough Facebook) making profit off it, and that it becomes more difficult to wrongfully censor people. Neither problem is truly solved with decentralization, however, and action from the European Parliament could bring more significant solutions to the table.

The last problem is what truly makes decentralization perfect: since you choose which server you use to communicate, you do not rely on a server like Google to run without hiccups. And if the communication ever happens to go down, I could always launch a server of my own, and keep talking with that server.

What the EU should do to make it perfect

I am personally convinced that decentralizing our communication would be a great step forward: to remove the network effect's blackmail, to let everyone choose one (or more than one) app of preference, with which they can communicate with anyone on any platform who's willing to talk back. There's one problem with this: platforms do not agree. Google and Facebook have used XMPP in the past, but switched to isolated proprietary chat systems later on. [12]

Try explaining to your grandmother that she needs to look for a trustworthy server, then select a client app of choice, and then connect to a decentralized network.

We can ask services kindly to decentralize their systems - but there's too many services, and they probably won't do it voluntarily. We should look for alternatives.

One option would be to get everyone on a decentralized network, but my current critique with networks like XMPP, ICQ and Matrix is that they're too complicated. You need to take a lot of steps to connect to the network - and though the individual steps aren't too complex on themselves, the whole process to step over can take 15 minutes; which is a lot. It's much more than simply installing Signal on your phone, create an account and you're done. Furthermore, I don't think that services like Whatsapp and Telegram don't deserve to exist - they are helpful for a lot of people, and there are a lot of people who prefer such platforms as their messaging app.

Nevertheless, I do believe that there's a way forward. We can solve all these issues - but we'll need politicians to understand and shape the internet, and that's a difficult topic.

My proposal

Having taken all the information, I hope that you understand what I mean with my proposal. When summarized, it is as follows:

The European Commission should create an independent government agency and charge it with ensuring competitiveness of the online market by forcing social platforms to be accessible through an open communication protocol.

What does this mean? It means that the EU should form an organisation that bonks companies on their head if they refuse to decentralize. In this section, I will explain why I think that this is the most effective way to achieve a decentralized system.

Effectively, forcing social media companies to decentralize their servers, giving every customer the option(!) to communicate with people outside the service. The open communication protocol's definition would go together with two obligations that the platforms need to adhere:

  1. When accessing a platform's services, the user isn't obliged to use any software delivered by the platform (like smartphone apps, pre-written HTML-pages or other software), but should be able to use third-party software that connects with the server according to the protocol defined by the European Commission;

  2. The platform must allow third-party services to connect to the platform server according to the protocol defined by the European Commission, as long as they have the intent to support interoperable communication between platforms, servers and self-hosted software;

I'm not a lawyer, a politician or whatever, so don't take this too much as legal jargon. If these rules are in any unclear, send me a message and I'll change them.

How to realise your goals while fighting big companies

Although enacting new laws can do a great deal to achieve your ideals, it often happens that big companies manage to escape intended restrictions - take Ruben Verborgh, for example, who deleted Facebook in January 2019 and has ever since tried to get all their personal data from Facebook. Instead of complying to the laws, Facebook claims they don't need to share the data and keep refusing to answer in long and boring emails. [13] Some may think that big tech companies will always manage to find loopholes in newly enacted laws - but is this true?

Facebook menu that allows you to delete your Facebook account

I dug into the history of the Netherlands, and I found some interesting facts that I didn't know. This is about a government agency called the Independent Post and Telecommunication Authority, shortened as OPTA. [14] One of their major tasks was to ensure that the interoperability between telecom providers in the EU.

What this meant, was that the OPTA made sure that it wouldn't matter which Dutch telecom provider you'd choose, you would always be able to communicate with people with subscriptions from different companies. Imagine needing a subscription on Vodafone to call with your colleagues, one on Deutsche Telekom to call with your family, and another subscription on SoftBank to call with some overseas friends! Instead, the government had appointed OPTA to make sure that it wouldn't matter which provider you used. [15] Does this ring a bell?

Nowadays, the market is so free that the OPTA no longer exists, and they merged together with some other agencies to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets, which still passively supervises the telecom market. [16] Nowadays, switching from provider is as easy as saying that you want to switch, and the providers take care of everything for you. If your provider ever comes up with any suspicious terms that you don't like, you simply state that you'll switch, and you move on.

People choose a mobile subscription based on the provider's quality. No-one tries to convince one another to switch to a different provider.

This sounds like an ideal world to me: this is when the consumer gets the truly free choice of the product. You choose what you want based on the company's quality, not on whether you can contact your relatives on a provider - because you can contact them on any.

We need an OPTA 2.0, a new agency in the European Union that ensures not only the telecom market, but also the digital communication market is truly fair and free.

What would OPTA 2.0 do?

The way that OPTA 2.0 could ensure decentralisation, is a similar manner to how Matrix defines their protocol: by pre-defining an open communication protocol that the companies must support. This is also very simple to check - if you can access your account using the defined protocol, then the company lives up to the rules. If you cannot access your account that way, then the company doesn't live up to the rules.

Additionally, OPTA 2.0's ruling power would be similar to how OPTA's decisions worked: their demands would be binding for big tech companies, yet their claims can be overruled in court. This gives OPTA 2.0 sufficient executive power to make sufficiently quick decisions in the ever-changing landscape of the internet.

The OPTA 2.0's main focus would be to form and define an open communication protocol that suits every European citizen's needs when it comes to online communication: a protocol like XMPP, for example, has a solid framework, but it's less focused on features that we consider trivial nowadays, e.g. group chats instead of 1-on-1 conversations, reactions on messages, etc. A good EU open communication protocol would revolve around supporting the needs of the people.

Additionally, the open communication protocol needs to be easy to bridge with another open communication protocol. That way, people even have the freedom to communicate in alternative ways. This is the most important feature of a decentralised system: you don't even need to use the same protocol and you can still talk to each other. Companies should be required to at least support communication under the OPTA 2.0's protocol, individuals are free to use whichever protocol or platform they want.

Why hasn't it happened yet?

If you're still reading this article, (thank you!) then you're probably wondering why this hasn't happened yet - and the answer is that it's complicated. The European Commission has already proposed The Digital Services Act packages, which makes competition on an online market easier.

Simultaneously, Dutch politicians aren't very knowledgeable when it comes to digital topics, and they usually lack any concrete ideas to work towards. [17] This is why I intended to share the idea of decentralization of our communication - but with little success.

When I contacted Dutch political parties, they didn't give me the assurance that decentralized communication protocols were something they had already considered. GroenLinks and PvdA admitted they had no idea what an open communication network was, SP wishes to create an advisory commission that informs them on computer-related topics, and the VVD, the Netherlands' biggest party, even thought I was trying to sell them an app, saying the government shouldn't develop their own version of Whatsapp.

The problem isn't that the idea is unrealistic or controversial - the problem is that no-one knows what it is. Neither do politicians.

This idea could ensure a free and fair digital market, allow everyone to leave any platform they dislike, remove blackmail from social media platforms and give everyone the freedom to communicate with whomever they want.


What you can do about it

The problem isn't complicated or controversial, it's simply an unknown topic! If you would like to see your apps decentralized, make sure people know about this concept. I'm not a politician so I can't enact these policies, but the best way to enact anything like this, is by changing our mentality: if everyone wants decentralization, politicians will soon enough pick up the idea and present it as a healthy solution.

Let's make companies' success base on their quality, not on the difficulty to leave their platform.

If you happen to agree, what can you do? You can take the following actions:

I hope that this article was an interesting read for you. I will update this article in the future if necessary, and I'll be keeping track on any reactions, comments or updates. Let's get rid of platforms that we're sick of - and get rid of people who try to convince you to install more communication apps!



Sources

[1] Dweb: Decentralised, Real-Time, Interoperable Communication with Matrix https://hacks.mozilla.org/2018/10/dweb-decentralised-real-time-interoperable-communication-with-matrix/

[2] End-to-End Encryption implementation guide https://matrix.org/docs/guides/end-to-end-encryption-implementation-guide

[3] Matrix and Riot confirmed as the basis for France's Secure Instant Messenger app https://matrix.org/blog/2018/04/26/matrix-and-riot-confirmed-as-the-basis-for-frances-secure-instant-messenger-app

[4] Slack-rival Element wins largest ever collaborative software deal https://sifted.eu/articles/element-germany-deal/

[5] WhatsApp says you shouldn't worry about it sharing personal data with Facebook. Experts say you should switch to 'highly trusted' Signal. https://www.businessinsider.com/whatsapp-experts-users-worry-about-sharing-personal-data-with-facebook-2021-1?international=true&r=US&IR=T

[6] YouTube has a huge problem... - Markiplier, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWaz7ofl5wQ

[7] Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html

[8] Facebook Is Permabanning Oculus Quest 2 Owners for Owning an Oculus Quest 2 https://www.extremetech.com/gaming/316326-facebook-is-permabanning-oculus-quest-2-owners-for-owning-an-oculus-quest-2

[9] Section 230 - Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230

[10] Exposure to untrustworthy websites in the 2016 US election https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0833-x

[11] Social media and democracy: we need laws, not platform guidelines https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20210204STO97129/social-media-and-democracy-we-need-laws-not-platform-guidelines

[12] Security scandal around WhatsApp shows the need for decentralised messengers and digital sovereignty https://fsfe.org/news/2020/news-20200228-01.en.html

[13] Getting my personal data out of Facebook https://ruben.verborgh.org/facebook/

[14] Onafhankelijke Post en Telecommunicatie Autoriteit - Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onafhankelijke_Post_en_Telecommunicatie_Autoriteit

[15] Europees telecommunicatierecht - Wikipedia https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europees_telecommunicatierecht

[16] Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands_Authority_for_Consumers_and_Markets

[17] IT-kennisniveau politiek laag, maar wordt beter - AG Connect https://www.agconnect.nl/artikel/it-kennisniveau-politiek-laag-maar-wordt-beter